Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Francis R Farquhar
The Tiger Leaping Gorge (so called because a tiger leapt its narrowest part to avoid a hunter, according to local legend) contains the Yangtze river 60 kms north of Lijiang, Yunnan, SW China. I plodded along its 22 km trail with two Dutch girls who made concrete subways for their national railway system. The exploit was their idea. It was put to me over some strong liquor in a bar in Lijiang a few days before and I agreed readily, as one does when a romantic adventure is suggested by an attractive person (well one of them was). Their names were Stonze (short for Constanze) and Wijs (maybe not short for anything – I don’t remember). Stonze was the one I fancied and my mind lit up with visions of our coming together in the heat and urgency of shared exertion. Foolish boy!
The trip was strenuous from the very beginning. First we all had to get up before dawn and wait for an hour for the minibus to take us to the gorge. None of us spoke more than a few words of Chinese and I have no Dutch either. However the two girls spoke good English, as the Dutch invariably do. We were dumped off unceremoniously outside a sort of guest house in the middle of a huge flattish plain. There were mountains in the distance but no sign of any gorge. The place was shut and no one was in sight. Our map in the guide book was typically inadequate and inaccurate. We struck off on foot heading for the nearest of the mountains – on the principle that for a gorge you need mountains. What had looked flattish terrain from a distance turned out to be anything but. There were many mini gorges encompassing small streams that needed crossing. The water was very cold but fortunately none of them were deep. Eventually we came upon some peasants – they were in blue jumpsuits so I presumed that to be their station in life. We could not make them understand our objective. Showing them a picture of the gorge and the terrible map in the guide book helped not a jot. I even tried drawing a gorge in cross section – obviously their words were unknown to us but they didn’t even point in any direction so nothing was achieved. This process was repeated every time we encountered locals. Once we even got a lift in the back of a flatbed lorry – but this made matters worse – we were taken away from the direction we had been following and could not get the lorry to stop and let us off until we had been carried back almost to our starting point. We doggedly headed back in the original direction, crossed the river by ferry and eventually found ourselves at the start of the gorge as dusk was falling. Clearly nothing more could be done that day so we stayed the night in a stone barn belonging to one of the local Naxi indigenous people. This was a rugged experience as the floor of the barn was covered in a thick layer of cow dung and we were obliged to lie on this with just some straw to keep us clean. It was bitterly cold and I had not thought to bring a sleeping bag as I’d thought of it as a day trip. The girls both had bags of course – but they selfishly did not offer to share one of them. I slept not at all. The next day started just before dawn again – under the direction of Stonze, who by this time had assumed control of our little band. As Wijs and I plodded along behind her in the dawn light, barely able to keep up, I reflected on the rashness of my decision to join them. I was exhausted by the rigours of the day before and from lack of sleep and cold. Stonze was built like the proverbial brick shithouse – at least that was how she appeared to me now – so different from the pleasant musings I had about her earlier in happier times. Wijs and I formed a sort of bond of shared resentment of our leader and her continuing demands on us to keep up. I realized that Wijs was quite well disposed towards me – an Eternal Triangle was developing.
The trail we were following was over 22 kms in length. The cliffs below our path, which was often narrow and always stony, were 2,000 metres high. One false move would indeed be our last. Only later did I learn that this was a contender for the title of Deepest River Canyon in the World. There was no turning back. As the trip progressed Wijs and I resisted the barked orders to keep moving more firmly and were able occasionally to collapse together for a breather. During these intervals I learnt much about the concrete fixtures that adorn the Dutch railway system and also that Wijs had no boyfriend at present. When I asked how Stonze stood in that regard I was informed that she was not really interested in men! I felt deceived on all counts!
It got dark long before we reached the end. The two girls had head torches of the sort used by miners. I had no torch at all so had to walk closely behind to use the feeble beam of light cast by theirs. There was now a real danger of falling off the narrow slippery path to the river far below but we could not dawdle as we all tacitly realized a night on the path would not be a good idea. I have never been so tired and stressed in all my life. We did not reach the miserable guest house at the end till well past midnight. The next day we parted company. I have never seen either of them again.